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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #382

I woke up with my friend this morning on another one of these interminable trains, the seemingly endless journey to Kramatorsk, at the briskly early hour of 5.30am with a hazy sense of relentless tundra and trees passing by. I’m quite exhausted by it all and we supped on our coffees as the train moved into Poltava. One of the instant messaging group chats I am a member of has alight with disputes about what ought to be in an IFAK (an “individual first aid kit”), following an article about the subject published yesterday in the Lviv Herald, that seemed to have dissolved into a number of bitter personal comments about one-another and I had an email in the Lviv Herald inbox entitled “official complaint”. Well, I replied that as a volunteer newspaper we don’t have an official complaints process but if someone else wants to publish an article about what they think ought to be in an IFAK then that would be considered a reasonable right of reply.

I find it extraordinary that people use social media to get so upset with one-another, often people they hardly know, and at a great distance, and it makes me concerned that there are too many people in the international NGO community with not enough to do and they just prefer to spend their time arguing with one-another. I pride myself that the Lviv Herald,, rises above petty interpersonal disputes and that it is a genuinely independent and free-thinking newspaper that publishes point and counterpoint in the spirit of free debate. I never thought an article about what ought to appear in an IFAK would cause such consternation, and it certainly isn’t worth personal venomous attacks on one-another. But the NGO world is sadly full of petty animosities, as people are undisciplined by a single over-arching governing structure and therefore they seem to take out their petty vengeances on one-another. That’s all part and parcel of working in this world, I suppose.

Part of it is a military mindset, I think, which considers that nothing is up for debate or discussion and every issue is one of command and obedience. The spirit of journalism, by contrast, entails free debate and discussion and the liberty - within legal limits such as the obligation not to defame living people - to write what you want and to have a variety of opinions out there. For a military man of a certain kind, the question of what goes into an IFAK may be an issue of what you are instructed goes into an IFAK and therefore any dissent amounts to unacceptable insubordination. For special forces or specialist aid workers, by contrast, there is a legitimate debate about such things because the environments they work in are in each case distinctive. Anyway this illustrates why journalists and the military often make poor bedfellows. The military know that they need journalists to promote their cause; but they cannot tolerate the freedom inherent in journalism which is why we find Ministry of Defence press releases issued to journalists with an expectation that they will be published unabridged and without question, whereas journalists typically consider it part of their mandate to question and debate. In the military - at least, in the regular ranks - that isn’t wanted, although of course at more senior levels in the military it is considered essential.

Military organisations, because they have a culture of unconditional obedience to commands as befits the emergency nature of operations in military theatre, are particularly inclined amongst all large organisations to bureaucratic inertia. They find it very hard to change directions when something isn’t working because each part of the system is waiting for commands from above. This is what the localised NATO command structure model is supposed to change and why NATO units are supposed to be more effective; nevertheless it’s a cultural thing working in the military, to obey rather than to question. Journalism is part of the process of debate and argument that helps managers and leaders get decisions better, and senior military people realise that this is important even those lower down the ranks may not appreciate this quite so much.

We were stuck at Poltava for a while during which time the train staff split the train in two, one half going to Kharkiv and the other to Kramatorsk. Then the train got stuck. We wanted to get off for coffee but apparently this was not possible. We were locked out of the carriage toilets and the situation was getting slightly desperate. I could hear more pings on my ‘phone relating to the contents of IFAKs. I stared across the miniature bedroom on the carriage at a printed version of Virgil’s Aeneid in Ukrainian that I had brought with me, and the blood rushed out of my skin. At the time of writing it’s still only a quarter to nine in the morning, and we have another six and a half hours to go. By Ukrainian railway standards this is a drop in the ocean but we’re both feeling terribly bored, staring out of the window at a faceless Ukrainian village with its crumbling brick houses and unkempt unpaved roads. We’re wondering why we will finally get a break in the journey to stretch our legs and have a proper cup of coffee.

A pleasant English speaking lady on the train approaches us and asks us to change money. The banknote she’s holding looks shifty but I accept it anyway on the basis that it’s unlikely she’s forged a 25 Euro (500 Gryvna) banknote. There’s an incoherent wailing of air raid sirens in the background and the train doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Finally some grunting and stretching of the metal and the train rolls off on its way. We seem to be heading somewhere. The spring mornings here in eastern Ukraine are dry and the strong sun has bleached the brickwork in the buildings. We pass over a stagnant river on an aged Soviet steel bridge and pass more primitive villages. I am reminded not only of how vast Ukraine is but how predominantly rural the country is and how reliant everyone is upon this vast network of railways to move around. In these isolated settlements, there is nothing but the train. It’s like the American Wild West in the nineteenth century, and the level of development necessary is going to be colossal.


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